Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Monday, August 21, 2006

Death Happens

Working in a museum, I get lots of phone calls from a random assortment of people on a random assortment of subjects. One repeated theme that comes up in my phone calls is "what can I do?" In general this particular question is asked because the caller has seen something- a caterpillar, a bird’s nest, an interesting frog- that piques his or her interest. Generally, what the caller is meaning is how can they help this individual animal to survive. This week alone I have gotten six (!) calls that replay this theme. Twin assumptions seem to be at work here. The first is that nothing in nature can survive without some sort of help from humans. The second is that it would be tragic or unnatural if the animal in question were not to survive.

I believe that this situation is an illustration of how disconnected many people today are from the natural world. In conversation with people concerned about backyard wildlife (at least with those whose aim is not to kill it), I frequently come away with the feeling that many of them are viewing the wildlife similarly to their own pets, most of which would survive poorly in the wild. Particularly with insects, which are the subject of most questions directed to me, the simple fact of the matter is that only a tiny fraction survives to adulthood. Far from being tragic or unnatural, death is the norm and the natural work is full of it.

A co-worker of mine has observed this phenomenon on a grander scale. She spent some years as a safari guide in Tanzania, and is replete with stories about tourists freaking out over some of the more spectacular acts of predation that they witnessed. Responses were often similar to my telephone questions, except that rather than asking what they can do, these people were asking the guides (often at high volume) "can’t you do something about it?"

I sometimes have to struggle against smugness with my callers. I, of course, am a trained scientist and am supposed to have gotten past that sort of response. Yes, these questions often indicate a significant disconnect from nature. At the same time, I need to be mindful that this approach to the natural world is not entirely a bad thing. At our best, we humans are highly empathetic creatures. I would hate to live in a world were nobody inclined towards empathy for non-human creatures. As with so many things, the key here is perspective.

My standard response is to gently encourage the caller to observe the animals that they have found, and to remember that it is the way of nature that most of them will not survive. Most people are relatively receptive to this approach. A significant fraction of them seem actively relieved that no intervention on their part is necessary. And I remind myself that in this highly urbanized and harried world that we live in, any person reporting that they have found something interesting in the natural world and taken the time to watch it is a victory.

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4 Comments:

At 18:37, Blogger rodger said...

We live next to a 7,000 acre protected forest park and have all kinds of wildlife. One of my favorite experiences is when I'm lucky enough to see the Cooper's Hawk make a kill on the fly. I know it sounds sick but it is one of the most fascinating experiences!

Of course for the squirrel with the bad hind quarters allone can do is hope he's lucky.

 
At 20:11, Blogger Ur-spo said...

that was a very nice thoughtful approach.
I concur most of us see 'nature' as either a decoration or at least something we can always manage.
Then the weather hits....

 
At 06:45, Blogger Doug said...

rodger-

I don't think that sounds sick at all. I never get tired of observing the natural world. There is a terrible beauty in seeing a predator make a kill. Sounds like you live in a gorgeous spot with the 7,000 acres right next door.

 
At 23:08, Blogger thingfish23 said...

We are always happy to see predators around, and we honestly don't have enough of them. For a time, The Wife was definitely NOT into having the hawks and owls hunting in the yard.

That was, until the squirrels started raiding the bird feeders in force. Now she wants all the predators we can get around here!

 

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